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What is the mind-body problem?


To: Walter F.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: What is the mind-body problem?
Date: 22 July 2005 11:55

Dear Walter,

Thank you for your email of 12 July, with your first essay for the Philosophy of Mind program, in response to the question, 'What is philosophy? Illustrate your answer using the example of the mind-body problem.'

A good question to start with would be, What is the mind-body problem? why is there a problem concerning the relation between body and mind?

You remark that dualism is a 'doctrine that nobody holds but everybody practices'. In Daniel Dennett's book 'Consciousness Explained' there is a nice cartoon of a professor at a blackboard writing a very long equation, which comes to an abrupt end. 'Then a miracle occurs.' The philosophical joke is that not a few researchers working in the field of neuroscience make the tacit dualist assumption that somehow, when enough machinery gets going, mind just 'appears'. They assume the very thing that needs to be 'explained'.

As a matter of fact - contrary to what you assumed - there has been an increasing rapprochement between philosophy of language and linguistics - very much against the spirit of Wittgenstein (who famously remarked, in relation to the nascent science of psychology, that there are 'experimental methods and conceptual confusion'.) Some theoretical physicists now openly brag of doing 'experimental metaphysics' - which shocks me even more.

Freud is an interesting case. Frank Sulloway in his long and learned biography (which I have only dipped into) attributes to Freud a 'biology of the mind', where the drives are seen as quasi-physical forces. Yet Freud's therapeutic practice belied this mechanistic view of the human mind. What seems to be true, and important, is that our history goes far back beyond the time when apes first walked upright and developed a language. We are not just physical entities, but physical products of blind evolution occurring over hundreds of thousands of years, which has left us with an unhappy, or at least ambivalent inheritance - something human beings would not have if we were designed by God 'from scratch'. While we try to rationalise our situation, in reality we are driven by forces that we barely comprehend.

There is surprisingly little concern for this aspect of the human situation in modern functionalist philosophy of mind (as exemplified, e.g. in Dennett's work). You would think that all it took to make a conscious subject was a sophisticated computational capacity - forgetting that we are agents who act for a purpose, and purpose is not something that can just be invented, out of the blue.

I wonder whether the 'functionalism' you refer to bears anything more than a passing resemblance to Dennett's brand of functionalism. Dennett's starting point is the intuitive idea that whatever brains do to produce thoughts, feelings and consciousness is in some sense independent of the 'stuff' that brains are made of. The same structure, composed of different stuff, would accomplish the very same purpose.

So, for example, it might be possible for a Martian, whose body is based on silicon chemistry, to have the thought, 'Earth is the third planet from the Sun', and this would be the same thought as my thought that 'Earth is the third planet from the Sun' even though seen through an electron microscope (as it were) something very different was going on at the purely physical level. What matters is the 'software' or 'program', not the hardware.

Hence the alarming idea that, if all I am is a program, then it ought to be possible to 'upload the GK program' onto a super-computer, then 'download' it into a new body - or dozens, or thousands of bodies.

I have tried to imagine what point is being made by the claim that 'psychotherapy is an invasive procedure'. Here is my best guess. Full frontal lobotomy is an invasive procedure because it physically alters the structure of the brain. If you think of the mind in biological terms, as Freud was tempted to do, then it looks as though the 'talking cure' is non-invasive because it leaves the biology intact. But if the essence of mind is not in its biology but in its functional organization described in psychological terms, then the psychotherapeutic approach alters the structure of the mind itself, and so, in its way, is just as 'invasive' as surgery.

I agree with you and Khashaba that philosophy is fundamentally different from science. But history has shown that philosophy has always learned from science, and benefited from that knowledge - even at times, like the present, when philosophers fall into the trap of attempting to imitate scientists.

All the best,